Washington Week

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Trump vs. Clinton: Fighting Terrorism

By Jenna Goff and Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellows

Combating terrorism is a hot-button issue in any presidential campaign. But this year, with almost daily terror attacks happening around the world, it is a particularly pressing topic. In the wake of lone-wolf attacks in the U.S. -- such as the December shooting in San Bernardino, CA and the June attack on a nightclub in Orlando – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have repeatedly spoken out on terror.

The candidates have recently made terrorism a political mudslinging tool: Trump has called Clinton and President Obama the founders of ISIS, with Clinton responding that these comments were yet “another example of Donald Trump trash-talking the United States.”

But as Election Day draws even nearer, the candidates are starting to buckle down on the specifics of their platforms on how to defeat ISIS and other threats.

Washington Week is covering Trump and Clinton’s stances on a variety of lightning rod issues leading up to the election. We first covered their economic policies, and now we delve into terrorism.

International coalition

In an August 15 speech in Ohio, Trump pledged that his administration would “aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS [and] international cooperation to cut off their funding.” He also suggested an international conference, working with Middle Eastern allies such as Israel, Jordan and Egypt, with the common goal of stopping ISIS.

Despite his recent criticism of NATO, Trump also proposed working closely with the organization to further develop a division focused on terrorism. He wants to develop relationships that would cut off major funding to ISIS.

Clinton similarly wants to work with international allies to defeat ISIS and the ideologies that fuel it; she cites her duties as Secretary of State as a good track record. In her speech following the Orlando attacks in June, she pledged to “stem the flow of jihadists from Europe and Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and then back again… by working closely with our partners, strengthening our alliances, not weakening them or walking away from them.”  

Clinton wants to work hand-in-hand with European and Middle Eastern allies to target jihadist enablers and target ISIS affiliates from Libya to Afghanistan.


Trump turned heads in February, when, during a presidential primary debate, he said, “I would bring back waterboarding. And I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The torture tactic was used by the CIA under the George W. Bush administration but was officially banned by the U.S. Army in 2006.

Since his February remarks, Trump has repeatedly doubled down on his support for waterboarding, most recently following June’s terrorist attacks on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. During a rally in Ohio, Trump told the crowd, "You have to fight fire with fire...I like [waterboarding] a lot. I don't think it's tough enough."

Besides his controversial take on waterboarding, Trump has proposed a sort of emotional torture on ISIS fighters by harming their loved ones. During a December phone interview with Fox and Friends, the Republican nominee said, "The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families." Both of these strategies would constitute war crimes under the Geneva Conventions. 

Clinton has hit Trump over his stance on torture, telling a Florida crowd following her March primary victory in the state, “When [Trump] embraces torture, that doesn’t make him strong. It makes him wrong.”

Just one week later, the Brussels airport was struck by a deadly terrorist attack that killed 32, but Clinton stood by her anti-torture remarks, saying, “Our country’s most experienced and bravest military leaders will tell you that torture is not effective...It does put our own soldiers, and increasingly our own civilians, at risk.”


After the San Bernardino shooting in December, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has since modified that stance: he most recently called for the “extreme vetting” of incoming immigrants, which would include answering questions that could serve as an “ideological test.”

Clinton fired back against the proposed Muslim ban when Trump first suggested it in December, calling it “shameful” and “dangerous.” She has since repeated this criticism, stressing the danger of anti-Muslim sentiment.

We’ll talk more about the candidates’ stances on immigration in a future post.

Air strikes

Perhaps the only matter of agreement between Trump and Clinton on terrorism is that they would both continue heavy airstrikes against ISIS. President Obama pursued such a strategy with his security team, saying at the Pentagon in December, "We are hitting ISIL harder than ever." More recently, the Department of Defense placed the number of airstrikes against ISIS at over 14,000.

But the two presidential candidates use very different language to describe their strategies. Trump alarmed some commentators in November, when, discussing ISIS’ oil holdings, he said, “I would just bomb those suckers, and that's right, I'd blow up the pipes, I'd blow up the refineries, I'd blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left.”

The Republican nominee adopted similar language in August when asked about ISIS’ burgeoning presence in Libya. He told Fox Business’ Stuart Varney, "We have no choice but to bomb them. They have taken over Libya. That was another one of Hillary Clinton's duties — they have taken over Libya. No good. We have to bomb them."

Clinton’s remarks have been more measured but still in support of continued airstrikes against the terrorist group. Her platform calls for “combating terrorism and keeping the homeland safe” by “intensifying the coalition air campaign against ISIS fighters, leaders, and infrastructure.”

But, in November, the Democratic nominee also emphasized that the airstrikes would be in connection to a ground presence: “A more effective coalition air campaign is necessary, but not sufficient, and we should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS.”

These statements reflect Clinton's philosophy serving as Obama's secretary of state, when she pushed the administration to keep thousands of troops in Iraq.

Gun control

Trump does not necessarily view gun control as an effective method of battling terrorism. After the terror attacks in Orlando, he said: "If some of those wonderful people had guns,” the “carnage” would have been far less. He later clarified his comments, saying that only the security guards should have had guns.

Clinton, on the other hand, spoke out in favor of enforcing tighter gun control measures, saying, “If the FBI is watching you for a suspected terrorist link, you shouldn't be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked.”

Stay tuned for a future post about Trump and Clinton’s views on gun control.

Military strength

Trump has long called for a strengthening of the U.S. military to combat terrorism abroad. In a video released in January, Trump announced he would “make our military so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody - absolutely nobody - is going to mess with us.” Details on how he would raise the defense budget to do so are sketchy, although he has suggested that an increase wouldn’t actually be necessary due to his plans to reduce “waste, fraud and abuse” from government spending.

Most recently, in his remarks on terrorism on August 15, Trump reinforced his stance on military strength saying, “My administration will aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS… Military warfare is essential.”

Clinton also believes in maintaining “the best-trained, best-equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known,” yet advocates for a more sustainable defense budget and a focus on “net-centric warfare.” She wants to build a defense budget that limits runaway cost growth but allows the government to focus on combating 21st-century terrorism. Rather than focusing solely on a military buildup, then, Clinton will also focus on mapping jihadist networks online.

Cyber warfare

Trump recently pledged that his administration would engage in “cyber warfare to disrupt and disable [ISIS’] propaganda and recruiting.” This follows comments from the primary debates last winter, when he suggested shutting down areas of the internet “where we are at war with somebody.”

Clinton’s platform similarly focuses on cyber warfare. She has vowed to work with international tech companies to “fight jihadist propaganda online, intercept ISIS communications, and track and analyze social media posts to stop attacks—while protecting security and privacy.” After the attacks in Orlando, she expressed the need to monitor the internet to stop lone wolf attacks on American territory.

Intel sharing

During his Ohio speech in August, Trump promised that his administration would pursue “expanded intelligence sharing” to combat terrorism, but he did not provide specifics on what the expansion would look like.

Some of Trump’s calls for more intelligence sharing have raised alarm bells in the security community, such as when he asked Russia to find Clinton’s missing emails and provide them to the American press.

Clinton’s platform promise to “work with our allies to dismantle global terror networks” includes “working hand in hand with European intelligence services to identify and go after enablers who help jihadists forge documents and travel undetected.” Such gaps in European documentation checks, due to the current migrant crisis, have been blamed, in part, for the attacks on both Paris and Brussels.

Following the June attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Clinton also promised greater intel sharing between America’s own forces at the local and national levels, calling for an “intelligence surge.” Addressing Cleveland just after the attack, she said, “Too often, state and local officials can’t get access to intelligence from the federal government that would help them do their jobs.”

Arming rebels

During her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton was a vocal proponent of arming moderate Syrian rebels in an attempt to defeat ISIS. She later argued in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, "But if rebels could be vetted and trained effectively, it would be helpful in a number of ways. First, even a relatively small group might be able to give a big psychological boost to the opposition and convince Assad's backers to consider a political solution."

President Obama initially rejected the proposal before later accepting it after Clinton had left the State Department. The program was largely a failure due to the armed “moderate” rebels eventually fighting alongside other, more extremist factions. Clinton makes no mention of a similar plan in her current platform, only promising that her administration would be “stepping up support for local Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground and coalition efforts to protect civilians.”

Trump has made no proposal for arming rebels and would be unlikely to support one, given his assertions that Obama “continues to prioritize our enemies” in the fight against ISIS.